Examining how Michael Carter-Williams is setting the league on fire

Examining how Michael Carter-Williams is setting the league on fire

Through his first three pro games, Michael Carter-Williams is averaging 20.7 points on 47% shooting, with about nine assists, five rebounds and four steals. Those numbers aren't just impressive for a little-hyped rookie, they're impressive for absolutely anybody. Carter-Williams' current PER of 29.2 is nearly six whole points higher than that of four-time league MVP LeBron James, who MCW arguably outplayed in his historic NBA debut.

What's more, Michael has done all this for a team that's shocked the NBA world by starting the season 3-0, beating contending teams like the Heat and the Bulls in the process. And MCW has played a central role in all three W's, including hitting the game-sealing free throws against Miami and dishing the game-sealing assist against Chicago. As crazy as it sounds to say, through the first week of the 2012-13 NBA season, Michael Carter-Williams is probably your league MVP. It shouldn't be possible, but it is.

But how? How is he doing this? Well, as for which dark forces are involved that have inspired Carter-Williams to play like this, I can not attest, but I've isolated some of the more specific things MCW has excelled at doing through his first three games that have allowed him to put up such ridiculous numbers. Hopefully nobody from an opposing team will notice or plan for these things, and MCW can keep playing like this forever and ever.

1. Hitting Catch-and-Shoot Threes

The most common knock on MCW out of college was that he can't shoot, but as I've said before, that's not really true--it's not hitting the shots that's the problem so much as knowing when or where to take them. So far in his pro career, MCW has mostly only taken shots off good looks, resulting in him shooting an impressive 8-17 from deep.

He's by far the best when he just releases off a catch-and-shoot, getting his feet set and squaring up, and he's shot 5-10 so far off catch-and-shoot threes. Look at this one he hit early against Miami:

What's impressive about this clip isn't the shot so much as what Carter-Williams does to get it. He sees Thaddeus Young working his way into a double team in the post, and inches his way over to the corner without attracting the attention of the help defender. This helps get him a better shot once Thad notices him and kicks out, not just because the corner three is the shortest in the league, but because the help defender has to scramble a longer way to contest it.

Even when I thought he was going to struggle for most of his rookie season, I encouraged Sixer fans to consider the shots MCW was getting more than whether or not he made them, and Michael working to get himself shots like this is very encouraging.

2. Scoring with Length

Carter-Williams doesn't have a particularly diverse repertoire yet when it comes to getting his own shot, but as a long-armed, 6'6" point guard, he does have a huge natural advantage in most matchups against opposing PGs, including Chicago's Derrick Rose. In this clip, you can see him simply taking it to the hole and scoring over Rose on three separate occasions, who does his best to contest but can't really get high enough to bother the shot.

MCW will eventually have to greatly improve his mid-range game, and develop a floater for when he gets past the first line of defense and has to shoot over big men that he can't simply toss it in over. But he should be able to get an easy bucket or two a game simply by being longer than his over-matched defender.

3. Causing turnovers with length

Scoring isn't the only thing Michael's height and length are good for. His size advantage and quick defensive instincts also contribute to his being a disruptive force on defense. In this clip from the Sixers' opener, LeBron James gets MCW on a mismatch, forcing him to try to front LeBron.

Due to MCW's length, Miami's Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem both struggle to feed LeBron an entry pass for what would be an easy layup or dunk. Eventually, Haslem floats a pass that isn't high enough and is easily picked off by Carter-Williams, who leads the break the other way and finds Turner isolated on the other end against the power forward Haslem, allowing Turner to shake his way to an easy iso score.

A couple games later, he teams with Thaddeus Young to pester Derrick Rose 30 feet from the basket late in the fourth quarter:

In this one, Carter-Williams' length forces Rose to leave his feet to be able to even see where an open teammate might be, and then Rose has to throw the pass so high that it ends up sailing well above its target and out of bounds.

Racking up steals was something Cater-Williams excelled at out of college, leading the Big East with 2.7 a game last year, and his length is obviously a big reason why, so it's good to see that translating so far to the bigger bodies of the pros.

4. Gambling for steals

Length isn't the only asset MCW has when it comes to creating turnovers--he also has excellent instincts for filling passing lanes and gambling for takeaways, like with this pickoff he came up with in the first quarter against the Heat:

Taking a closer look at this one, you can see MCW's eyes focused on Heat guard Roger Mason in the corner, who is telegraphing his upcoming pass to the flashing Udonis Haslem near the basket.

MCW would be taking a big risk by going for the steal here, because if he guesses wrong, he's leaving his own man, Mario Chalmers, wide open at the top of the arc for the basket. Luckily for MCW and the Sixers, his guess is right, and he gets the easy steal to lead the break the other way.

Later in the game, he again finds himself isolated on the wing against LeBron.

This is a bad matchup for the slight-of-frame MCW, and he knows it. So rather than let LeBron get the ball and either back him down for an easy turnaround jumper or drive or spin past him for an easy layup, he decides to curl around LeBron for the last second and attempt to interrupt Bosh's entry pass. Bosh never sees the intercept coming, and Carter-Williams has the ball and is off.

It's through this combination of athleticism and smarts (and a couple lucky breaks on bad Heat passes) that MCW managed to rack up a record nine steals in his debut game against one of the smartest offenses in basketball. Given the transition-heavy offensive attack Coach Brown wants to run with these Sixers, getting live-ball turnovers like these is absolutely paramount, so MCW's defensive disruptiveness is obviously a tremendous asset.

5. Sucking in the D and dishing out to shooters

The most immediately obvious skill about MCW is his ability as a passer, which has led to him racking up an impressive 27 steals (with just seven turnovers) over the Sixers' first three games. One way he gets these numbers up is by penetrating into the opposing defense, attracting the attention of a number of help defenders, and then passing out to an open teammate, usually behind the arc.

Michael does this here against the Heat to get an open look for James Anderson:

Freeze the picture and you can see that there are four pairs of eyes on Carter-Williams as he gets into the teeth of the defense, while Anderson simply sets up at the wing behind the arc and waits:

By the time LeBron snaps back to reality, Carter-Williams has already delivered a clean feed to Anderson behind the line, who simply turns and fires for the most uncontested three he'll get all night.

Michael draws even more attention on this crucial possession later in the game, as he drives down the floor with the Sixers up just one with less than two minutes to go:

This time, you can clearly see how all five Heat defenders converge on MCW as he attacks the basket...

...leaving a wide-open Evan Turner in the right corner, wildly signaling for MCW to send the rock his way, which Carter-Williams does. Evan ends up missing the shot, but it's a high-percentage look that Coach Brown would take ten times out of ten in a late-game situation, and it's basically all due to MCW.

The Sixers don't have a ton of great shooters on their roster, and certainly not many who can get their own looks off the dribble, so having a point guard who can deliver the ball to teammates in the right spots at the right time can help players like James Anderson stay relevant in the NBA, and help the Sixers take advantage of one of the most efficient shots in the game.

6. Passing to big-man shooters out of the pick-and-pop

Coach Brown has long encouraged his big men, particularly Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young, to launch from distance when given the opportunity. Playing with Michael Carter-Williams, Hawes and Young certainly get their share of such opportunities, as evidenced by this seemingly endless stream of drained pick-and-pop jumpers they've hit in just three games of playing with MCW:

Unlike during the Doug Collins days, when the pick-and-pop normally resulted in countless long two attempts--commonly viewed as the least-efficient shot in basketabll--most of the looks here are from three, which both Thad and Spencer have proven they can hit this season, Spence shooting 6-12 from deep so far. Of the team's P&P big men, only Lavoy Allen still seems to favor the long two--likely because that's the high end of his range at the moment--but Lavoy's been hitting, shooting 9-14 from the floor so far this season.

The MCW-run pick-and-pop proved to be such a weapon against the Bulls that Brett Brown called it for the team's last play of the game--seen at the end of the above montage--with Hawes setting the pick up high against Derrick Rose. Unlike earlier in the game, when the Bulls seemed content to let Spence fire away from deep, this time Chicago Joakim Noah lept out at the big man, allowing Spence to pump-fake to get Noah in the air, take a couple steps in and calmly drain the open game-sealing jumper.

Getting our big men open looks from distance, especially if they're hitting, stretches the defense for this team, getting opposing bigs out of position and allowing penetrators like Evan Turner and Tony Wroten room to operate in the half-court. All good things for this offensively limited 76ers team.

7. Passing to rolling bigs out of the double-team trap

The primary reason I expected Michael Carter-Williams to struggle so mightily against the Heat was because they've typically terrorized unexperienced point guards with their tough perimeter defense, particularly by unelashing two-man traps on point guards far away from the basket, leading to turnovers on turnovers and unparalleled mental anguish for the poor opposing floor generals. For a rookie in his first game, it just seemed unfair to ask him to go against a defense like this.

But Michael Carter-Williams was apparently very well prepared for the Heat's trapping ways, as he was able to quickly recognize the traps, and deliver passes over (or in one case, under) the double team to the open, rolling big man:

Consequently, MCW was able to negate the Heat's most potent defensive weapon, cut down on live-ball turnovers the other way, and mos importantly, get his big guys all kinds of good looks towards the basket in the process.

By the way, as you can tell from his presence in so many of these videos, it's not an accident that Spence is putting up the best numbers of his career--19 points, 11 boards, 65% shooting--while playing with MCW for the first time. He's never shown chemistry like this with a Sixers point guard before, and just might continue to put up some serious numbers catching feeds like these from Carter-Williams.

Well, hopefully that all goes to explain some of how MCW has done what he's done through three games of the NBA season--again, minus any potential promises to Satan or flirtations with Fairuza Balk or anything. Can he keep it up tonight against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors? If you're not glued to your TV tonight at 7:00--or there in person at the Wells Fargo Center--to see for yourself, you sir or madam need to get with the damn program.

No. 12 Villanova at Elon: Wildcats eager for CAA road win

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No. 12 Villanova at Elon: Wildcats eager for CAA road win

No. 17 Villanova (3-1, 1-0) at Elon (2-2, 1-0)
Rhodes Stadium, Elon, N.C.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Climbing in the national rankings, Villanova looks for its fourth straight win this weekend in a road CAA contest. Here’s a look at the matchup:

Scouting Villanova
After a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, the Wildcats have won three straight, including a 31-14 rout of Lafayette last week. The Wildcats’ defense continued to flex its muscle in that victory with senior defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon scoring on a 25-yard fumble return to go along with his two sacks and sophomore linebacker Jeff Steeb returning an interception 45 yards for a TD. For the season, Villanova’s defense has now scored four touchdowns in four games while its rushing defense ranks 21st in the country, allowing just over 100 yards per game. Offensively, running backs Aaron Forbes and Javon White formed a nice tandem last week with both scoring and Forbes running for a career-high 111 yards on 11 carries.

Scouting Elon
The Phoenix bounced back from two straight losses to start the year with a home rout of Fayetteville State and a massive 27-10 road win over nationally ranked William & Mary last week. Just its second victory over over a top-10 FCS program, Elon was led by a 120-yard, two-TD rushing game from Malcolm Summers and an opportunistic defense that intercepted three passes. Elon does have some question marks offensively with several underclassmen in prominent roles, including sophomore Daniel Thompson, who took over for the injured Connor Christiansen at quarterback after the first game. But Elon’s passing offense still ranks third in the CAA with 206.5 yards per game.

Series history
This will be Villanova’s first-ever game vs. Elon, which joined the CAA in 2014.

Storyline to watch
Kpassagnon, an NFL prospect, was the biggest reason why Villanova extended its winning streak to three, putting all kinds of pressure on Lafayette and setting the tone by scoring a defensive touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. He’ll have a chance to do that again and try to rattle a young quarterback early. And he may need to have another big game in what figures to be a low-scoring affair between two hot defenses.

What’s at stake?
Elon and Villanova are among six teams that are 1-0 in the conference, meaning the winner of this game could rise to the top of the conference after just two games.

Prediction
Elon’s win last week was very impressive, but it seems unlikely that this young Phoenix squad can knock off two nationally ranked teams in a row. Villanova 24, Elon 14.

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Howard, Phils can spoil Mets' season

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Howard, Phils can spoil Mets' season

Phillies (70-89) vs. Mets (85-74)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

Just three games remain in the Phillies' season. After a 24-17 start, the season went predictably downhill. However, the Phils have a chance to play spoiler to a big-time rival with the New York Mets in town. Alec Asher is on the hill for the Phillies while Robert Gsellman faces the Phillies for a third times this year.

Here are five things to watch on Friday night.

1. End of the road for the Big Ticket
There are just three games left in Ryan Howard's tenure with the Phillies.

It's been a long ride for Howard. There'll be plenty on Howard this weekend (and there's a pregame ceremony for him on Sunday), but here are some of his stats from his 13 years in Philadelphia.

Howard has hit 381 home runs and has 1,192 RBI with the Phils. He has 10 seasons of at least 20 home runs and has a run of six straight seasons from 2006 to 2011, his first six full seasons, with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI. He twice walked more than 100 times in a season and he racked up 276 doubles.

The long-time first baseman has hit 47 home runs against the Mets, his second highest total against any team (52 vs. Atlanta). In 174 games, Howard has 157 hits and 73 walks against the Mets.

Howard goes into the weekend with 197 home runs at Citizens Bank Park. Overall, he's racked up 1,465 total bases at CBP. He has, however, struck out 880 times in 769 games there as well.

2. Playing spoilers
While the Phillies are firmly outside of the playoff race, the New York Mets are in the driver's seat for a wild card spot. The Phillies could have something to say about that.

The San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals both won on Thursday while the Mets were off. That leaves the Mets one game ahead of the Giants for the first wild card spot and two games up on the Cardinals for a playoff spot. 

If the Mets win two of three this weekend, they clinch homefield advantage in the Wild Card game on Wednesday. With one win, they guarantee that they cannot be eliminated this weekend. Their magic number is two to clinch a playoff berth, so a combination of wins and Cardinals' losses can get them into the postseason. 

The Phillies can throw a wrench into the Mets' gameplan with a strong showing this weekend. While they've lost six of seven, the Phillies will likely get up for games with playoff implications. Furthermore, the Mets have the incentive to clinch as soon as possible as to avoid needing Noah Syndergaard to pitch on Sunday, so they can hold him for the National League wild card game on Wednesday.

3. Asher closes out impressive month 
Asher has made four starts since coming up earlier this month and has been much more impressive than his late season stint in 2015. 

After going 0-6 with a 9.31 ERA last year, he's 2-0 with a 1.66 ERA. However, despite picking up a win last weekend against the Mets, he struggled late and left room for improvement. 

Asher began his start Saturday vs. the Mets with a perfect game through three innings. He worked around three baserunners in the fourth inning, but came unglued after a couple errors in the fifth inning. While poor defense is not his fault, it would have been a good sign if he could have picked up his defense. Instead, he barely made it through the inning after four unearned runs.

Normally, a team would look for length out of their starter when handed such a large lead, so Asher only making it through five is disappointing. He still hasn't allowed more than two earned runs and has induced plenty of weak contact with his two-seam fastball.

The Mets will be the first (and only) team he faces twice this season.

4. Third time the charm vs. Gsellman?
Gsellman will be making his seventh career MLB start on Friday and it will be his third against the Phillies.

In two starts against the Phils, Gsellman is 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA over 13 innings. He has 13 strikeouts against them while allowing 10 hits and three walks. 

All four runs he allowed to the Phillies came in his first start. He had held the Phils to one run over six innings but departed after loading the bases with none out. The Mets' bullpen promptly allowed all three inherited runners to score.

On Sunday, Gsellman dominated, shutting out the Phils for seven innings. He allowed just five baserunners and struck out eight in the 17-0 win. 

The 23-year-old rookie has a 2.56 ERA through seven appearances in the majors. He started the season in Double A, but he will likely get a playoff start if the Mets gets to the Division Series.

5. This and that
• The Phillies have just two extra base hits in 50 plate appearances against Gsellman. They are hitting .222/.271/.267 against him. 

• Eight Phils have hits off Gsellman. Freddy Galvis is 2 for 5 with a double and Jimmy Paredes is 2 for 3 with a double and an RBI. 

• Michael Conforto hit a home run off Asher last season. No Mets hitter has more than one hit against him, in part because none of them have faced him more than three times.

• The Phillies have 601 runs on the season, the fewest in baseball by 39 runs. The Mets have the fifth worst total with 659 runs.

• Jeanmar Gomez is 0-3 with a 19.13 ERA in September. He's allowed 18 runs (17 earned) in eight innings.